Keast Burke
photographer, photo historian, editor of the Australian Photo-Review

 

A STORY of The STORY

Correspondence between Jack Cato and Keast Burke

Gael Newton

originally published in Photofile, Autumn 1986


The preface to The Mechanical Eye in Australia (1985), a scholarly sources guide to 19th century photography, begins with a respectful acknowledgement of the work of pioneer historians Keast Burke and Jack Cato, who left a framework upon which all other photographic historians have built.(1)

Just so! Such public recognition reminds us that histories, unlike novels, are mosaics constructed by one or more authors from both primary material and the interpretations of earlier historians. The 'framework' cited by co-authors of The Mechanical Eye in Australia, Alan Davies and Peter Stanbury, refers to Cato's The Story of the Camera in Australia (2) published in 1955, and Burke's programme of historical articles in The Australian Photo-Review (AP-R)(3) from 1943-1956 as well as his monograph on the B.O. Holtermarm negative collection, Gold and Silver, (1973).(4) (In reference to Keast Burke's work it should be noted that it is partly a case of a family co-operative since his father Walter who preceded him as editor of the AP-R was also historically minded and both Keast's son Quentin, and wife Iris, assisted in research and article writing for the AP-R)'.

   
the Story of the Camera in Australia, 1955 (right - revised 1977), Jack Cato

 

Jack Cato died in 1971 aged 82, and Keast Burke in 1974 at 78, (the latter just missing out on the official opening of the Australian Centre for Photography in November). Burke had been a tireless campaigner for the recognition of photography as a historical resource and as an art. He approached the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales to accept Pictorial photography, without success, but in 1964 was engaged as a consultant to build up the collections at the Australian National Library. In this capacity Burke directed a number of collections to the Library as well as personal donations of photographs and photographic literature and ephemera.

Since Keast's death Iris Burke has been cataloguing an extensive remaining collection of photographic material and literary research papers, as well as progressively depositing parts of the collection in the National Library and the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Included in the many papers awaiting cataloguing is correspondence between Keast Burke and Jack Cato from 1948-1956(6) - over 240 letters chiefly concerned with the research for The Story of the Camera in Australia, historical articles for the AP-R, and the discovery (in 1951) and subsequent unravelling of the Holtermann collection of wet plate negatives from the 1870s.

The cornespondence provides a view of a process of historical research as well as of the relationship between the two men, their respective temperaments and differing philosophies of research. The correspondence, (and a related letter from Jack Cato to R.J. Noye of 1965), resolves a contemporary historical puzzle - what happened to the research material for The Story of the Camera in Australia?

A new generation of researchers into the history of Australian photography began work in the Seventies as part of the widening interest in the medium that had generated the Australian Centre for Photography. Few of these researchers had personal acquaintance with either Burke or Cato.(7) Their interest in the medium came from an incipient post-modern pluralism in the arts rather than as a direct legacy of The Story or Gold and Silver. Until the publication of The Mechanical Eye in Australia, nineteenth century researchers were dependent on The Story for a basic account of the period.

The title 'story' clearly places Catos book in the 'popular' narrative tradition of history for a general readership. Burke's writings were similarly for nonspecialist readers of Kodak's house magazine and the audience for Australiana interested in the NSW goldfields towns of Hill End and Gulgong covered in Gold and Silver. However the lack of cited sources in Cato's book compared to the traditional scholarship in Burke's has caused some frustration among contemporary historians. The lack of footnotes for specific sources, (Cato builds many references to collections into the text), also slows down the process of re-examination for accuracy. Thus it was natural that researchers would search out the notes and files Cato used. These were found to be missing and finally presumed lost.(8)

Turning to the correspondence we find that Cato refers to his 'shrinking folios'(9) and in a letter to R.J. Noye after publication of The Story Cato confirms that most of the notes were tossed out. Keast Burke carefully saved the letters from Cato and carbon(10) copies of his own, as by July 20, 1953 he noted I think we had better keep all your papers intact for eventual deposition. Burke was aware that their correspondence was history and even joked of its eventual publication.(11)

Jack Cato prominently begins the acknowledgements in The Story with the following:

Firstly, to Keast Burke of Sydney, Editor of The Australasian PhotoReview, whose fortnightly letters over a period of four years advised, suggested, and criticised this work as it developed, who generously placed a number of historical items at my disposal and brought the resources of Kodak (Australasia) Pty Ltd to my assistance.

When the manuscript was sent to him for reading Burke assessed it as a, magnificent research achievement and one undertaken by the only person in the country who could have undertaken it, but added, At the same time forgive me if I say you could have done better. I still want to see more background material, more incidents, more sociology, more curious happenings - all this to sweeten the necessary factual catalogue.

In saying this Burke(12) was giving, what emerges in the correspondence, as atypically measured view. Cato was not a 'historian' by nature yet he could be a talented, energetic and intelligent researcher. He had closed his Melbourne studio in 1946 and published a successful autobiography I Can Take It.(13) in 1947. That Cato had more serious literary ambitions is evidenced by the novel, Paul's Studio, which he had ready for publication (but which was not published) when he first came into real contact with Keast Burke.(14)

 

 

It was through publicity in the AP-R for I Can Take It and a later book of photographs of Melbourne (1949)(15), that Keast Burke proposed in 1949, a series of articles on the history of Australian photography for the AP-R(16). He also requested Cato to write the entry on photography in the revised edition of the Australian Encyclopaedia.(17) Cato took up the former suggestion as some similar idea seems to have been in his mind. Cato proposed monthly articles over two years for which Kodak could give him a 500 pound credit for equipment and publish 1500 copies of the series as a book later as means of payment for the articles.(18) Being under contract to Georgian House, the publishers of his autobiography, Cato soon developed the scheme into an independent book.

Burke seems to have recognised that Cato had a talent for writing, clout with a publisher, enthusiasm for a history project and time and modest funds to complete it. As a busy editor (soon to be engaged on a massive project on Holtermann) Burke evidently had no plans for a history of his own, or if so, did not mention it to Cato.

By careful management of funds, bartering prints with tradesmen, hundreds of letters and the sale of his beloved stamp collection, Cato was able to sustain four years of research work, at first part-time then full-time. He travelled little, visiting Sydney only once in 1952 when he acted as chairman at Harold Cazneaux's tribute evening, which Keast Burke had organised. He appears to have visited the National Library in Canberra but no other states. Cato made good use of contacts such as RG Menzies and fellow members of The Savage Club.(19)

The correspondence shows how Keast Burke and staff of the AP-R assisted with Cato's direct enquiries and shared information from their own projects. Burke and Cato also used each other as sounding boards and had several, quite long-running debates over their different interpretations of material, such as whether J.W. Lindt used wet or dry plates when taking the photo of the dead Kelly gang member, Joe Byrne, at Seymour station in 1880.

Cato relied on written accounts such as the 100 or so letters from Harold Cazneaux on his career and on Pictorialism in general.(20) He also did extensive primary research through newspapers and the rich variety of collections in Melbourne, such as the Latrobe Library.

Burke seems genuinely to have enjoyed the colloquial style of Cato's letters asking for 'more prattle' after a serious bout on Cato's part and assuring him how welcome the letters were and always a 'good read'(21) without, however, letting Catds evident tendency to generalisation and supposition go unchallenged. The accuracy of The Story no doubt owes a debt to Burke's prompt reactions to many invalid assumptions. He certainly admired Cato's intuition and deductive powers.(22)

Keast Burke's suggestion as to a history in serial form for the AP-R had been prompted by a plan to include a section on photography in Alec Chisholm's revision of the Australian Encyclopaedia. Once Cato had the problem of how it might be done he concluded it was too large a project for the AP-R. It was a story full of colour and romance and interest and adventure.(23) He wanted a book, profit and prestige but also felt it should not be merely a catalogue of photographers;

It is much more, because photography grew up with the growth and development of Australia, and recorded it, it becomes a social document.(24)

Once the manuscript was with Burke in 1953 Cato reaffirmed the sociological aspect;

I've tried to make it an original contribution to Australiana by studying and reading the photographs themselves. I've not stressed this but, nevertheless, it is the real point of the book - that the camera gave us,the true factual report, while the eye witness often saw with the eyes of prejudice, or coloured by personal reaction.(25)

Cato took the task up with enthusiasm and seriousness. By 1951 the project had acquired its title. (The research was finished by May and the manuscript by July 1953). Cato, despite a businesslike concern for profit or at least no great loss, consistently viewed the work as something for posterity, citing the example of William Moore's 1934 Story of Australian Art which had, he said, been unwanted at 2 guineas but was in 1952 a valued collectors item at 25 guineas. He admitted modelling The Story of the Camera on Moore's book.

I have no illusions regarding my personal rewards in my own time for this effort, but some day there will be a consciousness of the fact that this was the only country in the world that, practically from the first, had its history faithfully recorded at the time it happened by the camera, that the records are still there, and the where will be very important.(26)

Whilst Cato was determined to take his responsibilities seriously in regard to sources and correct facts, he never intended taking up endlessly refined historical research. Existing on retirement capital and with other writing projects to do, Cato became a wry pragmatic. The Story was limited, in his view, by both his meagre funds and lack of time and the publisher's concept of size and saleability. Burke's Holterman work, well advanced by 1953, waited nearly two decades before another publisher was found with confidence in an Australian photography topic.

Burke's commentaries on the first manuscript of The Story rather surprised Cato, and he made it clear that he had sent it for reading not editing. With some 13 months full-time work on the task behind him Cato was by then 'tired of it!(27)

Contradictions abound in Cato's attitude to his work. It was to have first a technological, then a sociological aspect, but is in the end closely focused on studio photographers. Cato felt there was a particular tradition in Australia (as opposed to the showmen and spruikers of American photography) whereby,

the torch has passed from amateur to apprentice almost without a break, so that studios have always had a dignified semi-professional position in the business life of the community.(28)

Cato was quite hostile to amateur photography declaring that Geo Eastman made it easy. He emasculated it. For a long time it became the hobby of weaklings.(29) As a studio professional Cato was annoyed at amateurs doing jobs at reduced rates for clients such as newspapers. He had equally strong views on 'commie' journalists and critics, Picasso, and popular crooners.(30) Such views are typical of the anti-modernism of the 1920s onwards. Despite working in what would be seen as a pictorial style, Cato also dismissed the Pictorialists for not expressing life or the great work of growing nations and instead, seek out the ]one branch of a ti-tree leaning into the sunset.(31) Yet elsewhere he depicted Pictorialism as a spiritual outpouring of the mind which I think, we are sadly in need of today.(32)

Perhaps Cato's attitude to his 'Story' can be understood best in terms of Pictorialism for all his mixed feelings toward the movement. Pictorialism in Australia was an idealising style in which nature was improved by the personal sensitivity to form of the photographer. Distortion and abstraction were quite alienating to Pictorialists, hence the general disinclination to develop equally 'stylised' modernist work in the thirties. The impression of the scene or portrait was what counted with Pictorialists. The original subjects were enlivened, even dramatised, but rarely taken to emotional extremes. The Story of the Camera in Australia is not dissimilar. Cato has made a running narrative out of the facts based on creating an impression of a lineage of gentlemanly, charismatic, usually professional photographers, a tradition to which he himself belonged. Having written an autobiography and a fictional autobiography (Paul's Studio), Cato went on to create a Pictorial work in literature. It is possible he would have seen its lack of absolute accuracy in detail as no more of a failing than Cazneaux would have in highlighting a tone or suppressing an obtrusive line in one of his photographs. Ian Cosier, in his unpublished biography of Cato (1980), has also come to this conclusion.

Cato refers to hundreds of letters, many from old time photographers or their immediate descendents such as Steven Spurling of Tasmania. Some of the material was returned, including the Cazneaux letters. No doubt any material sent via Keast Burke or the AP-R such as that from 'Mons' (AJ) Perier has been preserved. Perier's subsequent criticisms of The Story were recorded at Burke's request and kept under restricted access until after Cato's death and placed in the National Library, Canberra.

The destruction of notes is understandable - they are often indescipherable, even to the author, after a passage of time. The possible destruction of original letters or unique transcriptions of interviews is unthinkable to most historians. It is to be regretted and hoped that it was not as much as it seems. The preservation of the Burke/Cato correspondence will possibly answer some source queries.

Whilst a biogaphy on Jack Cato has been written by Ian Cosier and will be expanded as a masters thesis, there are few profiles on Burke. One interesting short account of Keast Burke's involvement with the AdFas society by John White was published in Biblionews in 1984(33). A more substantial account of Burke's historical research into Australian photography and literature would be of value. The lack of a regular historical journal for informative articles on photohistory in the antipodes is highlighted by the fact that an account of just Cato and Burke's correspondence would take 10,000 words. This article has merely hoped to convey some of the interest generated in the author on reading a behind the scenes tale of the work of earlier members of her profession. Readers are duly warned that any information in it is to be treated as interpretation until such time as the correspondence is publicly available.

 

    1. Davies, Alan & Stanbury, Peter (with assistance from Con Tanre), The Mechanical Eye in Australia: Photography 1841-1900, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1985. Principal researcher Davies advises that Cato's book should be used with caution. Quotes are often combined from different sources. See also Nigel Lendon's review, Photofile, Spring 1985, pp27-28.

    2. Cato, Jack, The Story of the Camera in Australia, Melbourne: Georgian House, 1955, 2nd and 3rd eds Melbourne: Institute of Australian Photographers, 1977 and 1979.

    3. The Australasian Photo-Review, formerly Photographic Review of Reviews (Sydney: Baker and Rouse Pty. Ltd., (later Kodak), 1884-1956).

    4. Burke, Keast, Gold and Silver: An Album of Hill End and Gulgong Photographs from the Holtermann Collection (Melbourne; Heinemann, 1973, Ringwood Victoria Penguin large format p/h edition 1974) also first account AP-R Mar, May, Jly, Sept. 1953 & Feb 1954.

    5. Walter Burke (1866-1954) was editor 1907-1950; Keast Burke associate, then editor, 1922-1956 (ceased publication). See AP-R October 1954, K. Burke 'The Story of My Father, p630.

    6. The correspondence is not currently available for public scrutiny. An index is in preparation by the author.

    7. R.J. Noye, South Australia, was directly inspired by The Story into beginning research on South Australian photography. He received help and encouragement from Burke.

    8. Cato papers and manuscripts are held under restricted access at Latrobe Library, Melbourne. Ian Cosier's unpublished biographical thesis on Cato, (Melbourne University Fine Arts, 1980: copy ANG Library), includes a list of these papers in the Cato bibliography. Some Latrobe papers are concerned with photography but are not the bulk of correspondence or documents per se for The Story. The restriction is related to references to living persons mentioned in Cato's chronicles of The Savage Club of which he was a member from 1940.

    9. JC/KB 10.8.53.

    10. Copy held by Alan Davies. Sydney verbal advice from R.J. Noye.

    11. KB/JC 6.12.51

    12. KB/JC 4.1.54

    13. 1 Can Take It.- the Autobiography of a Photographer, (Melbourne: Georgian House 1947, 2nd Edition 1949).

    14. JC/KB 14.11.49 and 18.10.49. It was not published for personal reasons (see Cosier, op cit, p3).

    15. Melbourne: Georgian House 1949.

    16. KB/JC 2.5.49

    17. KB/JC 11.5.49, Alec Chisolm ed. (Sydney Angus and Robertson 1958), 2nd edition Sydney: Grolier Society of Australia 1965, see Vol VII pp102-5 for Cato article.

    18. Information in following is also drawn from many other letters too numerous to cite individually. JC/KB 9.5.49.

    19. The author has not yet grasped the function of The Savage Club, (see Cosier op, cit p52 for some details).

    20. The Cato/Cazneaux letters were returned to Burke and through Iris Burke to the Cazneaux family. Cato/Cazneaux letters are in the Mitchell Library, Sydney and contain duplicate references to Cato's attitudes to The Story, (see Cosier op, cit of p83-5 p56). Burke/Cazneaux correspondence 1951-3 is ciso held, MLA 2375.

    21. KB/JC 1.12.54, 24.6.52

    22. KB/JC 3.8.53, 4.9.53

    23. KB/JC 9.5.49

    24. JC/Edgar Rouse 20.7.51

    25. JC/KB 6.9.53

    26. JC/KB 7.9.52. Cato was also predicting the fate of The Story. It did not sell well at 6 pounds sixpence and was remaindered, (Cosier op cit p56). The first edition is now a collectors item at over $100 a copy.

    27. JC/KB 1.10.53

    28. JC/KB 1.2.52

    29. JC/KB 1.2.52

    30. JC/KB 24.6.52 and 14.10.51

    31. JC/KB 28.3.51

    32. 'Cover Designs, AP-R, Sept 1952, pp532-536.

    33. Biblionews & Australian Notes and Queries, 261, March 1984, p4-13. 'Vale Keast Burke, Your Society Remembered! White was another of Burke's correspondents.

 

In 1984, Gael Newton was Visiting Curator of Photography at the Australian National Gallery (ANG), Canberra. Gael is now the Senior Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia (formerly the ANG).